About a year ago, I had a life-changing experience.
I lay on a cold, hard, surgical table, shivers going down my spine. My arms were strapped down on either side of me as I lay on my back staring at the ceiling, squinting to see through the bright lights above me.
Draped only in a thin hospital gown, I was feeling exposed and defenceless; the most vulnerable I had ever felt in my life. There were about 10 other people in the room — surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, residents, med students — all trying to smile with their eyes, trying to convey kindness, though their faces were covered by masks.
Suddenly, I started to feel the panic rise within me, like a ball of fire in the pit of my stomach, rising gradually, burning me slowly from the inside. My husband placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered that everything was going to be OK and how excited he was for this moment.
Everything felt much harder, much scarier this second time around.
This was the moment before our son came into the world. This was supposed to be a happy moment, but all I could feel was anxiety and sheer panic. This moment should have been easier. I had gone through the exact same experience — a C-section — almost four years before when our daughter was born, but everything felt much harder, much scarier this second time around.
For some women, giving birth is a joyful experience, but for others like me, the birthing experience is a traumatic one, and often the trigger that sparks prolonged feelings of fear, stress, anxiety and sadness.
After giving birth, many women experience adverse emotional symptoms that vary in severity. There are three major categories of postpartum emotional conditions: postpartum blues (or baby blues), postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis.
According to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, the feeling of baby blues is common and usually temporary, but for some women, these feelings last much longer.
Postpartum depression is diagnosed if a woman experiences the following symptoms nearly every day for two weeks and interferes with her ability to care for herself or her child(ren):
- Depressed mood or extreme sadness
- Crying spells for no apparent reason
- Guilty thoughts
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Restlessness or lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Thoughts of harming herself or others
Looking back, there were days when I didn't want to get out of bed, moments when I felt like crying for no reason, and constant feelings of worthlessness. Not working was the hardest part for me. I've had a job since I was 15, and it felt unnatural to be at home everyday. It felt like I wasn't contributing.
And worse — I felt like I couldn't talk about it. I knew so many women who were struggling to have a child of their own, and here I was with two beautiful children, I didn't want to seem ungrateful.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, postpartum blues occur in up to 80 per cent of women and usually resolve within two weeks. Postpartum depression occurs in 10 to 20 per cent of women, has its onset in the ﬁrst year after birth, and can last months or even years. Postpartum psychosis is rare, occurring in about 0.2 per cent of women, and requires immediate medical care.
The strongest predictors of postpartum depression are: depression or anxiety during pregnancy, recent stressful life events, poor social support and a history of depression. Additional factors that might contribute to postpartum depression include hormonal changes, birth experiences, lack of experience with babies, family/relationship/marital stress, number of other children and demographic characteristics such as maternal age.
What are some ways to cope?
- Eat a well-balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts. Minimize red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains.
- Avoid alcohol. Alcohol's a depressant and won't help you feel better.
- Get regular exercise. This helps your body produce mood-enhancing endorphins and prevents sleep difficulties.
- Try to get enough sleep. This is a definite challenge with a newborn infant, but if you can sleep when the baby sleeps, you may be able to get enough rest over a 24-hour period.
- Stress management. Try relaxation exercises like yoga or meditation.
What worked for me? BounceBack.
Offered by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), BounceBack is a free, guided, self-help program using online videos, telephone coaching and workbooks. Although I have worked for CMHA for 10 years, this was the first time I had used one of the programs.
I used the workbook called "Enjoy Your Baby," which was full of helpful tips and step-by-step instructions for getting through the day with a screaming newborn. This workbook helped me manage my mood and focus on recovering, both physically post-surgery and emotionally.
For many women, this is often a topic not spoken about. Even for me, it took me weeks to share my feelings with my husband, and months and months before I spoke about it with my friends.
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When I finally started sharing my experience, I began to hear similar stories from other women, other new mothers who were struggling just as I was. Hearing about the experiences of other women not only helped me to feel like I wasn't suffering alone, but also helped me to learn more coping strategies that others were using.
Talking about my mental health was the very first step towards recovery.
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